Now that the criticisms of the vuvuzela have subsided and the sounds of the vuvuzela will soon take a break from the world stage too, we refer you to a fine post written by historian Laurent Dubois (references: Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of FranceSoccer Politics blog) and cultural theorist Achille Mbembe (see also his earlier essay). The piece was originally published by the blog Mediapart in French. The US radio program, The People’s Game, recently also had an interview with both authors (on anything but the vuvuzela) which you can listen to here.

The Mbembe-Dubois piece in English translation:

The story of the South African World Cup is now inseparable from that of the vuvuzela. About this plastic object the sound of which – especially when it is produced by the crowd – closely resembles that of a swarm of bees, much nonsense has been said and written since the beginning of the tournament.

As always when dealing with ‘things African’, people were made to believe that this ‘trumpet of the poor’ would be an example of primitive absurdity and mass hysteria. It doesn’t emit sounds let alone melodies, but a mechanical and infernal noise, a wild cacophony as monotonous as devoid of any content and meaning. The predominance of the vuvuzela would have contributed to the disappearance of other animated traditions of the football games. Folk songs, for example, would have been replaced by pure noise.

Since banishment is now the order of the day –as they have the intention to do with the burqa or the minarets in many European countries–some have gone so far as to demand its abolition.

The most important fact of this tournament is nevertheless clear. Against the predictions of many prophets of doom, South Africa has organized one of the most successful world cups in the history of this competition. The – ultramodern – stadiums have all been delivered on time. The planes take off and land in time at brand-new airports. The hotel services are comparable to what we find in the best places anywhere in the world. Financially, the dividends defy all expectations. The country is celebrating despite the elimination of its national team. Of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have flocked into the country, none, at least so far, has died at the hands of criminals. On the contrary, to varying degrees, all have experienced a hospitality that many say they haven’t received in Korea nor in Japan (2002), and even less in France (1998) and Germany (2006).

They thus had to be found elsewhere, those signs of chaos and ‘African violence’ heralded by the false diviners. And so the vuvuzela has become the metaphor of disorder and mass trance which the most stubborn think are the essential characteristics of the continent.

But, if we listen more closely, things are much more subtle. In terms of noise, the sound of the vuvuzela in a stadium doesn’t hurt the ear more than a metal concert or the uninterrupted roar of the engines on a transatlantic flight.

The object is rather indicative of the instantaneity of the moments of celebration – moments that are also ludic moments. But here, the spontaneity hardly hinders the rules. Most spectators know to distinguish the quality of the sounds produced by a vuvuzela.

In South Africa, and perhaps elsewhere too, a game of football first of all is a liturgical event. In this sense it appeals to the bodily expression – costumes and other paraphernalia, colors, dances, gestures, songs and rhythms of all kinds, face or body paint. Durkheim would have called it a ‘manifestation of excitement’. One would add that it only reaches that level because of some choreographic ornamentation of which the vuvuzela is a key element.

It all begins when getting off the bus. To attend a match at Soccer City, for example, spectators must get off the bus and walk along a ‘promenade’ of about three kilometers. Along the way, the vuvuzelas respond in echoes more or less regularly. As we approach the stadium, the volume becomes denser and more alive. The sounds however are snatched and recycled through the movement of bodies, the pedestrians’ steps, the wind blowing through the cold night, the costumes and the fiery-coloured flags, the calls of hawkers along the sidewalk.

This whole concert literally transforms the sound of the vuvuzela into a matter with wings that hardly weighs on the eardrum of the man or woman who hears it.

Once in the stadium, the sound effect increases as the kick-off moment comes near. The stadium is gradually taken over by an indescribable energy. It reaches its climax when the teams walk on the pitch, calms down during the national anthems and picks up again during the first minutes of the match.

From that moment on, every dangerous free-kick, every corner or, a fortiori, penalty-kick, is punctuated by a shower of sounds. In the cave with the Pharaonic dimension that is Soccer City, the tsunami of sounds can be hypnotic, especially during the celebration of a goal. When the game becomes boring and no team manages to score, it isn’t rare that the gladiators are encouraged by spasms of sound generally initiated from somewhere in the stands and spread across the whole enclosure like a breaking wave.

The vuvuzela is thus not a rejection of language. It isn’t the savage manifestation of a series of inarticulate cries either. At the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, during the match between the Black Stars and the U.S., the vuvuzela sounds went together with Ghanaian drums. At Soccer City, one could hear the chants of the Argentineans during the game between the Albiceleste and the Mexicans.

Football is neither an ecstatic cult nor a possession cult. It is an act of communion that offers its members the opportunity to share, with countless pilgrims from around the world, the moments of a unique intensity.

In South Africa, the sound of the vuvuzela offers these pilgrims who share neither language nor songs the possibility to participate in the production of a sonic geography of the stadium. Newcomers in South Africa for the World Cup understood it quickly. They quickly embraced it. During the different games, one saw the Mexicans, Japanese, Italians, Brazilians together create this choir that accompanies, critiques and encourages the players on the field.

Basically, the real fear of all the anti-vuvuzelistas is indeed that the instrument will start to ‘travel’; that it will move in the hands of the pilgrims back home with them to Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

What, then, is the future of this instrument? It will continue to generate controversy there where it will sound, carrying along to the new continents the singular experience that was the World Cup in South Africa. For us, today it accompanies delicious and heated moments. That’s why it will be remembered as the announcement of the past, because having lived the life of the vuvuzela in a stadium, it is difficult to forget the sound.

* That’s journalist Siddhartha Mitter–outside  Madiba Restaurant, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn–blowing away at his new vuvuzela Sean Jacobs brought back from the World Cup in South Africa.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.